Montréal, Canada


I’ve spent almost my entire life on the East Coast. I was a misfit in high school and always imagined I would end up in New York with the rest of my kind. Going to college in New Jersey, my first thoughts about Montréal drifted in across dorm room halls. I snatched details from conversations between Ugg Boot-clad sorority sisters planning spring break trips that (it should go without saying) I was most certainly not invited on. It seemed like a place where my socially well-adjusted (and still very much underage) peers could rent hotel rooms, perpetuate American stereotypes and get smashed on cheap, shitty beer. In this context, I was only vestigially aware of our northern neighbor as it starred in bravado filled vacation stories.

I grew older... Montréal was again a topic of conversation. This time mentioned as the hometown of various artists, skateboarders, hip-hop and indie musicians. and perhaps most unlikely, a fiercely independent, nascent bike culture. Montréal began to feel like a long lost cousin, a metropolitan city famous for its European sensibilities, outrageously good food, and a similar sense of city kid counterculture. Preparing to visit Montréal for the first time, I had only an abstract idea of what I might find.

Photo by Phil Penman

We arrived at noon at the home of our host for the weekend. I was apprehensive as we knocked on the front door of Caro’s beautiful loft apartment. Having no contacts in the city, we met our host and her band of fixed-gear riders through a bike forum. Our first impression was of the apartment: spacious and unpretentious, it was a New Yorker’s dream. One by one, our numbers multiplied, and we headed out the door toward the city. We sped down the road toward the hulking alien arms of the Olympic stadium. The solitary fields of grey cement surrounding the eerily dilapidated stadium lent our crew a sort of Mad Max feel.

Any vague thoughts that I would spend my trip to Montréal sipping espresso or eating crêpes at lauded restaurants went out the window. The next four days were punctuated with familiar waypoints: friendly smiles, bars, coffee shops and tons of pâté and poutine. We traced bike paths, swerved through traffic and raced one another up hills, easily passing for an anonymous gang of 20-somethings ubiquitous in any major city .

Our group lent a comfortably familiar feel to the trip. However, there were undertones of difference.

Photo by Phil Penman

My new friends were employed… and happy. As a resident of a city where no one’s apartment is big enough or job good enough, where hunger, ambition and resentment are the common denominators, the lack of complaint was deafening. Here, people hold the door for one another; they smile at each other in the street, and beautiful women approach you in bars. I couldn’t help but feel slightly confused as I reflected on this city where the fixed-gear kids are happy, healthy and have money, where artists can afford their rent and a good meal. Though I happily got used to the change of pace, I soon realized that every trade off has its downside. Maybe it’s the cold weather, but the atmosphere of hospitality and contentment seemed to encourage a lack of urgency that made my legs twitch restlessly. Sure, most everyone here is nice, intelligent and good looking, but is that enough?

Photo by Phil Penman

I added this thought to a mishmash of other charming contradictions. Here, the French Canadian population overflows with courtesy, but there is a “Don’t Fuck With Me” ferocity bubbling not so deep beneath the surface. The city seems to prize it’s blue-collar patina, but the reality is as much about progress and money as it is about old school self-reliance. This is a town caught between Europe and North America, not sure of itself, but full of pride nonetheless.